A weekend interview with Middleton High valedictorian Katie Gertz
Katie Gertz had choices when it came to entering high school. She didn't have to attend the perennially struggling Middleton High, in the middle of what's considered a rough Tampa neighborhood. But she decided to go there for the engineering magnet program, despite the school's reputation, and found it the perfect fit. She's now graduating as valedictorian and on her way to MIT. Gertz spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about her schooling choices, and offers advice for students who might want to follow in her footsteps.
You chose to go to Middleton High School, and Middleton didn't exactly have the reputation that made people want to go there. What made you decide you wanted to go there?
Well, I had gone to Stewart for middle school, and we did the Project Lead the Way program there. They're always talking about how we could continue doing Project Lead the Way at Middleton. I always thought I wanted to be sort of an engineer or scientist or something like that. So Middleton's whole program was just really appealing to me because I could keep doing all the building and electronics and the things I was doing at Stewart.
Can you tell me about Project Lead the Way?
Basically this company puts out curriculums for different types of engineering programs. The straight engineering one is the one that I am on. That has the intro and the principles of engineering. It has a little electronics and civil engineering. And then the final capstone project which is, your senior year you take some kind of question in the world ... and come up with the solution, spend the whole year designing it. It's a lot of hands-on. Also computer integrated manufacturing.
So you're really into all the engineering and building. When they told you that Middleton had that kind of program, was that your driving interest?
Yeah. I really wanted to be at Middleton. They have all the equipment. They have all the teachers. And especially all the kids, too. They also wanted to do engineering, which is really nice. It's really fun to be with people who are similar.
But probably when you chose to go there it was not the best school. Did you ever find that to be the case?
No. I never had any problems. When I first went there I think we were overcrowded, and we had fights. But so did my friends at Hillsborough IB and Chamberlain and stuff. But it wasn't anything unusual that I knew of. Then it's just been getting better and better every year. We've only seen two fights this year. It's really nice.
Now, you said you used to want to do that? Did you change your mind?
Yeah, which is another reason I'm really glad I went to Middleton. Because when I started doing the drafting classes, we got into architecture and we designed a greenhouse and I decided that's really what I want to do. I kept going with drafting, and I won a couple of contests in architecture, and that's what I am going to major in.
That's great. Where are you going?
That's amazing. Was that a dream school for you?
I think it was seventh or eighth grade when we started understanding college. And I wanted to go to MIT at that point. I remember my friend having a t-shirt and I went and did a tour over the summer. So, yeah, I've been wanting to go for a long time.
Do you have any advice for kids who are entering middle school or high school? Because it sounds like you really had a plan and you didn't let anything stand in your way.
I guess you really just have to figure out what sort of path you want to take. Middleton is a lot of hands-on learning and it's got really great math and science teachers, and of course all the other standard AP's and things that normal high schools would have. Basically, it's a really good opportunity to show colleges that you're interested in engineering and to show them that you can do well in that kind of thing. ... If you go to like IB or something, you take the exact same thing that everyone else in IB is taking. Yes, it's rigorous, but it might not really differentiate you from the crowd.
What if people say, it sounds cool, but I don't really want to go to school there because my friends aren't there, or because it's too far from home, or whatever reason? That school got a D once, or whatever?
Okay, the FCAT scores don't really matter for any part of the engineering program. It's just a separate thing. The FCAT scores just mean there's lots of talking about the FCAT and there's posters, and that's it. Let's see. The neighborhood, I've never felt unsafe at Middleton. I've always been fine. I was in band my freshman and sophomore years, and we used to walk to Burger King all the time. And it's not really a problem.
Do you find that people think that way, though?
Oh, yes they do. Yes they do. People think that all the time, that it's a scary place. It's not. It's a beautiful campus ... I don't know. I've never really felt unsafe.
What about for kids who just can't figure out what they want to do? Is there a way to get focused? Is it by talking with teachers? Trying a program like you did? How did you decide where you even wanted to start looking?
Being at Stewart helped a lot. I think Middleton is actually running some camps over the summer, so kids could try that. But that's new. ... What else? I mean, really, if you think you're interested you could just come to Middleton and try any of the magnets. ... The best thing about Middleton is it's really flexible. ... You just talk with the counselors and make up a schedule that fits you. I got to take AP chemistry my sophomore year without taking chemistry first, which I think is definitely a plus for MIT that I did that and did well in it. ... But you can come and try everything out. Maybe you will end up like I did, where you don't have the same goal all the time. I got to see what I liked about engineering and that I liked architecture more, which is really nice to know now instead of two years into college.
Did you have to give up extracurriculars to focus on your academics?
Not at all, which is really nice. I was in band. I've been on the math team, Mu Alpha Theta for all four years. I've been in engineering club for all four years. I've been an officer on engineering club and math team. I was an officer in band. I play piano at home. I do Girl Scouts. I think Middleton actually helped with that. My friends in IB have all this homework and all that. ...
Are you surprised by how successful you've been?
I guess I'm surprised in the meaning that it really doesn't sink in. I'm like, I'm actually going to MIT. Whoa, that happened, sort of thing. It's just really nice.